Rihanna’s Controversial Photo Op with a Loris Might Actually Aid in Conservation Efforts

Rihanna—queen of selfies and songstress behind hits like “Umbrella” and “Diamonds”—has found herself and a cute critter in the midst of an international firestorm.

On Friday, RiRi posted this shot of her cradling the endangered loris in Phuket, Thailand, on her shoulder with the caption: “Look who was talkin’ dirty to me! #Thailand #nightlife.”

Local officials weren’t too happy with Rihanna’s photo op: The two men helping to hold the loris in the photo were arrested and face up to four years in prison for possession of a protected animal, plus a fine of $1,300.

Here are four facts about the Rihanna-loris controversy you need to know.

1.  Lorises are endangered.

Lorises are rare in the wild and have become rarer, thanks to a booming pet business.

Poachers are easily able to spot—and capture—lorises.

“They have big eyes because they’re nocturnal,” said Kuhar. This means that loris eyes enlarge and shine brightly in the dark when poachers point flashlights at their face.

Making the job easier? “Their natural response to a threat is to hunker down.”

2. Lorises are valuable.

Being adorable means lorises command high prices in the black market.

They’re particularly popular in Asian countries like Cambodia and Japan, where they’re valued for their cute appearance; Indonesians see lorises as magical. In countries where poachers sell the animals to locals, lorises are valued at $32 to $54; Westerners have been known to pony up over $100 for a pet loris.

That said…

3.    You wouldn’t want a loris to be your pet.

“Videos make people want them as a pet,” said Rachel Munds, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has worked extensively with lorises and knows firsthand the adorability factor of a loris. “[But as a pet], they’re not that great.”

For one, they’re really high maintenance. Chris Kuhar knows a thing or two about keeping lorises—he’s executive director at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which holds lorises.

“These are animals that are nocturnal,” he says. Unless you’re willing to make your nighttime your morning, this isn’t exactly ideal.

Also, lorises require a bit more attention than the average pet.

“They have a slower metabolism than a chimp because they move so slowly. They can get really fat fast. That has a whole other level of health care and welfare issues.”

And as cute as these lorises may be, remember: Lorises have some bite. Yes, even that loris that was perched on Rihanna’s shoulder.

“There’s a good chance that that loris’s teeth had to be pulled out,” said Munds. “They have a toxic bite, so their teeth are pulled out to ensure that the toxin doesn’t get into humans.” Humans who get bitten might go into anaphylactic shock.

4.   Videos about lorises don’t necessarily help conservation efforts—but Rihanna’s photo op might.

Cute and cuddly makes for hit, viral videos.

But homemade videos have been detrimental to the plight of the loris, according to a recent paper, which notes that videos do not lead to increased knowledge of the loris’s plight—and could make more people want a pet loris.

“It’s important to recognize how powerful images in media actually are,” Kuhar says. “We’re really advocating for audiences to think about these images when you come across them. Think twice about liking them and forwarding them.”

On the other hand, Munds notes of the Rihanna photo: “There’s a part of me that’s upset, [but] in a weird sense, [it] helped” bring the loris to public consciousness.

“Rihanna has a much larger following [than a person in the conservation community],” she said. “The center of the story is that these people were arrested because this is a protected animal. That emphasizes that these animals aren’t something to be photographed with.” And the swift negative backlash could aid in conservation efforts as well.

One footnote: What might be good for the loris isn’t necessarily good for Rihanna. @therealkatburns commented on the photo, urging, “Don’t support people that have illegal/protected animals :(”

-Tanya Basu


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Tanya Basu is a news apprentice at National Geographic. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Previously, she studied economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.